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Motherhood Matters: 3 ways to be a less annoying parent

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I recently had to face a harsh reality: I am an annoying parent.

I’m not talking about being annoying to other people, though I have no doubt that I am, with my obnoxious baby talk and constant worrying that my kids have contracted life-threatening diseases. I am talking about being annoying to my children.

My 10-month-old daughter is too young to be bothered by me yet, but my 3-year-old son, Noah, could certainly testify that I can be annoying. Allow me to illustrate: Before I potty trained Noah, I read about Potty Boot Camp, a strategy that involves putting the child on the potty every 10 minutes throughout the day so he eventually goes in the toilet. Within the first day, the child has learned what it feels like to use the potty and has experienced success.

This sounds like a smart idea, and I hear it works wonders with some children, but I had a different experience with my strong-willed son.

He did really well for the first day or two, and I started to lengthen the time between potty breaks, but when the third day rolled around, Noah began waging World War III at the mere mention of the toilet.

I was so frustrated. He knew how to do this. Why was he defying me? Why wouldn’t he just respond to the timer on the microwave and go give it a try?

And then I thought about it from Noah’s point of view. What if someone stopped me in the middle of my play or work every 20 minutes, ringing a buzzer and insisting that I go sit on the toilet?

In a word, annoying.

With this realization came another: Children are just little grown-ups. Like us, they have opinions and personalities. Like us, they get irritated and resistant when people interrupt, nag, coerce or boss them around.

This doesn’t mean that we never potty train our children, never enforce bedtime and never expect them to help us clean the house. However, when we are willing to consider the personalities and preferences of our children (yes, even our little children), seeking their input and compromising at times and treating them with the respect we hope to be treated with, I am convinced that our children will actually listen better.

I don’t plan on giving up being annoying altogether (parents just have to boss and coerce their children at times), but since that fateful Potty Boot Camp, I have learned that I can be a much more pleasant parent if I simply tweak the delivery of my expectations. Here are three strategies I use:

1. Rephrase commands as choices

My son does not like being bossed. Who does? His natural inclination is to defy anything that comes across as a command. Yet when I take a step back to analyze how I talk to him throughout the day, I realize that a lot of our interactions come across as me bossing him around.

Eat your lunch. Grab your coat. Pick up those toys. Get in your car seat. Go try the potty. Hang up your backpack.

It’s no wonder he sometimes throws a fit or tunes me out.

I’ve found I can still get my son to do what he needs to do by rewording my demands as choices. For example, instead of barking at him to put on his shoes, I can ask, “Which shoes would you like to wear today?”

This small change in phrasing has dramatically reduced my son’s tantrums and my subsequent frustration.

It’s not always possible to rephrase a demand as a choice (“Would you like to sit in your car seat or sit in your, uh, car seat?”), but sometimes I can distract Noah from the task at hand by offering him a choice about something else. So as he enters the car, I might ask, “What song do you want to listen to first?” as I pat his car seat and gently direct him toward it.

The less I use my words to boss, the more cooperative my son seems to be.

2. Let him feel the cold

One cold November morning, I told Noah to grab a coat as he headed out the door to preschool. (Apparently I hadn’t learned strategy No. 1 yet.) He insisted that he didn’t need one, and I was tempted to argue with him but decided to wait. “OK,” I said, shrugging.

He opened the door, took two steps outside and paused, clearly registering that it was 30 degrees. “Mom, I think I need a coat!” he said, running back into the house to grab one.

Since that moment, I’ve tried to live by a principle I call “let him feel the cold.” This principle applies to any situation where I can let my son learn through his own experiences rather than from my nagging.

3. Make it fun

A lot of battles with Noah can be completely avoided if I am simply playful in the way that I ask for his compliance.

If I want Noah to stop playing and help me clean up, I sometimes talk to the toys and ask them for assistance. “Monster truck, do you think you could help Noah pick up these toys?” and then we vroom around the room grabbing toys and putting them away.

When my husband helps Noah brush his teeth at night, he sometimes enlists the help of a giant stuffed snake who plays devil’s advocate and encourages Noah not to brush. (Apparently Noah enjoys defying bossy parents and bossy stuffed animals.)

These games do not have to be elaborate. They do not require a lot of forethought or a fancy prize. All you need is a little bit of creativity and silliness.

Lessons from potty training

After our disastrous third day of Potty Boot Camp, I decided to take a break from my nagging and allowed Noah to determine his own bathroom habits. The boot camp had taught him the skills; now it was time for me to give him some space.

He went back to diapers for a little while, and then, sure enough, he told me he wanted to be a “big boy” and has rarely had an accident since.

The lesson I learned from this experience was not about which method of potty training works best. (Every parent will do that lovely task differently.) The lesson I learned was to try to see things from Noah’s perspective more often, to remember that he is a mini adult, and when possible, to avoid my annoying habits of bossing, harping and demanding.

I don’t plan to become a permissive mother who lets him do whatever he wants just to avoid a fight. And I’m sure Noah will always consider me a nag (what mother isn’t?). But I have found that when I tweak the delivery of my expectations — by wording commands as choices, letting my son “feel the cold” and infusing playfulness into my requests — I am much more pleasant to be around. I also enjoy parenting more, and I have far fewer battles with my strong-willed son.

This article is courtesy of Power of Moms, an online gathering place for deliberate mothers.